In the early centuries of the Christian era, a mysterious secretive cult flourished centered on the figure of Abraxas. Little is genuinely known about this entity or his disciples, who are generally (although not necessarily) placed under the broad umbrella known as Gnosticism.
Abraxas is an obscure, hidden deity. Is this a god? Or is this an angel, an archon (ruler, lord, or princeps), an aeon (emanation from God), the demiurge (creator and maintainer of the physical universe), a daemon (daimon; a nature spirit, often benevolent), or even an honest-to-goodness evil demon or devil? Abraxas is an entity, a spirit, or a phantasm that continues to confuse, mystify, and evade full understanding. Even the spelling and correct pronunciation of the name is subject to controversy. Should it be Abraxas or Abrasax? It seems that its earliest incarnation is the Greek ΑΒΡΑΣΑΞ, transliterated as Abrasax, but due to confusion and pronunciation changes, the alternative form ΑΒΡΑΞΑΣ (Abraxas) came into common usage. Today the name Abraxas may be perpetuated in the common “abracadabra” (or the two terms may derive from the same source).
Inhabiting the margins of consciousness, Abraxas remains the trickster, everything and nothing, the all and the void, wearing 365 different faces. For indeed, the name Abraxas sums to 365 by the ancient art of Isopsephy (assigning numerical values to the Greek letters—a practice related to Gematria, the equivalent procedure in Hebrew, as made use of in Kabbalistic studies to find hidden meanings in words): Α = 1, Β = 2, Ρ = 100, Α = 1, Σ = 200, Α = 1, Ξ = 60. This of course adds up to the numbers of days in a year, thus representing a complete annual cycle (and metaphorically, completion and closure). In some belief systems, each day of the year represents a different “heaven” (or one could say night sky, as the stars change position through the course of the seasons), and thus there are 365 heavens over which 365 archons (lords) preside. Abraxas is the first and greatest archon, overlord, or supreme ruler of all the others, encompassing all lesser archons within his being. In other renditions of the 365 heavens, the “heavens” are viewed as a series of “stages” or “creations,” each with its own archon and angels, the last stage becoming the visible material world we inhabit—and once again Abraxas is the first archon, the ruler among rulers, whose power and authority extends to the lowly material plane that we humans inhabit. Furthermore, the seven letters in his name are often said to represent the seven planets of the classical ancients: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.
Visualized images of Abraxas are found on various intaglio engraved gems, seals, and amulets of the early centuries CE. Typically he is depicted as a composite figure with the body and arms of a man, “legs” composed of two snakes or serpents, and the head of a cock. In one hand he holds a flail (or sometimes a club) and in the other a round or oval shield.
Many authorities link Abraxas to the Gnostic movement, which for a time may have rivaled more orthodox Christianity. In particular, Abraxas is associated with the Gnostic teacher Basilides, who flourished early second century CE in Alexandria, Egypt. Indeed, some authorities regard Basilides as the “inventor” of the “Abraxas gems” (for instance, C. W. King, The Gnostics and their Remains, 1887, p. 245). Others, however, have denied that these gems and amulets have anything to do with either Basilides or Gnosticism more generally (G. R. S. Mead, Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, 1900, p. 282). Either way, the “Abraxas gems” exist, and with them the concept of Abraxas, which most certainly does appear in Gnostic literature (see W. Barnstone and M. Meyer, editors, The Gnostic Bible, 2003). Perhaps the confusion over their origins and associations is in keeping with the nature of both Abraxas and the Basilidian sect, which essentially formed a secret society within the framework of early Christianity, for as the early Church Father Irenaeus, who flourished late second century CE, wrote, “The disciple[s] of Basilides remain unknown to the rest of mankind… and nevertheless must live amongst strangers, therefore must they conduct themselves towards the rest of the world as beings invisible and unknown. Hence their motto, ‘Learn to know all, but keep thyself unknown’ and for this cause they are accustomed to deny the fact of their being Basilidans [Basilidians or Basilideans]. Neither can they be detected as Christian heretics because they assimilate themselves to all sects. Their secret constitution, however, is known to but a few, perhaps one in a thousand or two in ten thousand… Their doctrine is contained in a sacred book, and likewise in Symbolic Figures. The Supreme Lord, the head of all things, they call Abrasax, which name contains the number 365.” (Quoted in King, pp. 262-263; italics in the original.) The engraved gems bearing the symbolic figure of Abraxas may have been sacred amulets and talismans, and also served as secret tokens, the possession of which allowed the bearer into clandestine gatherings of followers of the Abraxas cult.
The following passage is often attributed to the Christian author Tertullian (circa 160–circa 225 CE), as it appears within an appendix to his main body of works, the appendix being titled, “Against All Heresies;” however, it is almost surely not Tertullian but a later addition. Possibly it was written by the early Christian bishop Victorinus Petavionensis, who flourished in the late third century CE. Regardless of the author, this passage nicely summarizes one ancient interpretation of Abraxas.
“Afterwards broke out the heretic Basilides. He affirms that there is a supreme Deity, by name Abraxas, by whom was created Mind, which in Greek he calls Nous; that thence sprang the Word; that of Him issued Providence, Virtue, and Wisdom; that out of these subsequently were made Principalities, Powers, and Angels; that there ensued infinite issues and processions of angels; that by these angels 365 heavens were formed, and the world, in honour of Abraxas, whose name, if computed, has in itself this number. Now, among the last of the angels, those who made this world, he places the God of the Jews latest, that is, the God of the Law and of the Prophets, whom he denies to be a God, but affirms to be an angel.” (Translated by S. Thelwall, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 1887, pp. 649–650).
Such views as expressed above, that the “God” of the Bible is merely a minor angel, would certainly condemn the holder to the ranks of heresy according to the orthodoxy of the times—and indeed today!
Other interpretations of Abraxas are that although he is a powerful entity, he is not the ultimate supreme God of the entire universe. In a sense Abraxas could be interpreted as the manifestation of the ultimate God in the spatiotemporal realm. The Pleroma, the fullness or spiritual universe in its totality including all emanations and powers of the divine, is effectively the unknowable God. From the Pleroma arose the aeons or emanations known as Nous (mind; intellect or intelligence), Logos (word, speech, or reasoned discourse), Phronesis (practical wisdom or prudence), Sophia (wisdom), and Dynamis (power, potentiality). From Sophia and Dynamis rose the heavens and their attendant beings in turn. Abraxas, according to such cosmogonies, often takes the role of an emanation from Sophia, and Abraxas becomes the demiurge or creator of the material world over which he claims authority. Abraxas combines good and evil, standing above and beyond both. In his 1916 Gnostic treatise, The Seven Sermons to the Dead, Carl Jung wrote in this vein, “This is a god whom ye knew not, for mankind forgot it. We name it by its name ABRAXAS. It is more indefinite still than god and devil. ” (Discussed further below; translated by H. G. Baynes; uppercase in the original.)
Returning to the renditions of Abraxas engraved on ancient gems, some authorities have associated these figures with the Sun or solar deities (see for instance King, 1887), or referred to Abraxas as a “being of light” (Tobias Churton, The Gnostics, 1987, p. 55). In this connection, I cannot help but think that the imagery may have been inspired by observations of plasma configurations (electrically charged particles) observed in the skies during an intense solar outburst, such as that which I believe brought the last ice age to a close circa 9700 BCE (see R. Schoch, Forgotten Civilization, 2012). Tying in with the discussion of the preceding paragraph, the overall figure of Abraxas can be viewed as representing the Supreme Being or Pleroma (see King, 1887). The human body and arms represent the God or the Deity in a more restricted sense (man is the image of God). Two serpents or snakes representing Nous and Logos support the body. The head of a cock or fowl is emblematic of foresight, vigilance, and a new day (think of the rooster’s crow) and thus stands for Phronesis. The shield held in one hand represents wisdom (Sophia) and the flail, scourge, or club held in the other hand represents power (Dynamis).
Here I propose what I believe is a novel interpretation of the Abraxas figures. A topic that has occupied and eluded many great minds is the nature of consciousness vis-à-vis the material world. Does consciousness, mind, spirit arise from the material world (the typical modern “scientific” and materialistic view), or vice versa, as the Gnostics apparently believed? In modern times, coming from a quantum mechanics perspective, British physicist Sir Roger Penrose (University of Oxford) and Dr. Stuart Hameroff (University of Arizona Medical Center, Tucson) have theorized that consciousness arises from quantum “reductions” of a plethora of possibilities at the quantum level into definite “states” that we perceive as macroscopic material reality (see the paper by Hameroff and Penrose in Physics of Life Reviews, 2013). The quantum possibilities are described mathematically by a wave function that is “collapsed” to produce our reality. Returning to Abraxas and Gnostic beliefs, did they intuit such a modern understanding? Is the Gnostic Pleroma essentially the Quantum Plenum, the quantum vacuum or zero-point filled with virtual particles, quantum fluctuations, and thus numerous possible realities? I can imagine that the serpent legs of Abraxas represent the wave function, the possibilities before they are manifested as physical reality. In some ancient traditions the snake is associated with the feminine as well as the masculine and also may represent rising or spiritual energy (Kundalini) and potential manifestation. From the Pleroma/Quantum Plenum arises not just the material world but also mind, consciousness, thought, and reason, all continually shaping and creating the world or even a succession of “worlds.”
The cult of Abraxas and associated Basilidian beliefs did not disappear with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century; they have persisted covertly to this day. A certain Seffrid, a twelfth-century Bishop of Chichester (Province of Canterbury, England) owned a ring set with an ancient, engraved Abraxas gem (King, p. 434). The Knights Templar and the Cathars carried on Gnostic beliefs, and it is alleged that the emblem on one of the seals used by the Templars was derived from the ancient gem renditions of Abraxas. Abraxas and Gnosticism have also been associated, rightfully or wrongly, with Freemasonry, Rosicrucian orders, and other secret societies. Most famously in modern times may be the encounters that the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) had with Abraxas.
Particularly during the period of around late 1913 through 1917, Jung experimented with various “extraordinary” states of consciousness during which he appears to have had visions and communicated with entities, which can be variously interpreted as discarnate beings or his own inner consciousness, psyche, or soul, including an apparent spirit guide named Philemon, whom Jung later identified as Simon Magus, the reputed early Christian heretic and possible Gnostic. (Simon Magus appears in the Acts of the Apostles.) To place things in context, one should remember that the last few decades of the nineteenth and the first few decades of the twentieth centuries were a time when Spiritualism and séances flourished, including among various scholars, scientists, and other prominent persons of the upper class. Famous names from this period who actively experimented with séances and obtained, in their opinions, positive results include the British physicist Sir Olivier Lodge, the French physician and Nobel Laureate Charles Richet, and the American philosopher, psychologist, and Harvard professor William James.
On a Sunday afternoon in late January 1916, the Jung household experienced what, in my assessment, can be classified as a low-level poltergeist haunting. Jung wrote, “Around five o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday, the front doorbell began ringing frantically… but there was no one in sight. I was sitting near the doorbell, and not only heard it but saw it moving. We all simply stared at one another. The atmosphere was thick—believe me! Then I knew that something had to happen. The whole house was filled as if there were a crowd present, crammed full of spirits. They were packed deep right up to the door, and the air was so thick it was scarcely possible to breathe. As for myself, I was all aquiver with the question: ‘For God’s sake, what in the world is this?’ Then they cried out in chorus, ‘We have come back from Jerusalem where we found not what we sought.’” (quoted by Lance S. Owens, www.gnosis.org/library /7Sermons.htm; accessed 19 Feb. 2014).
Over the next week and a half, Jung wrote a short work entitled Septem Sermones ad Mortuos (Seven Sermons to the Dead, first privately published in 1916), which begins with the lines: “The dead came back from Jerusalem, where they found not what they sought. They prayed me let them in and besought my word, and thus I began my teaching.” (See Owens for an English translation by H. G. Baynes of The Seven Sermons of the Dead.) This is followed by the seven sermons, or lessons, in the fundamentals of Basilidian Gnostic Teachings, including an explication of Abraxas. Jung gives credit to Basilides, whom he seems to have channeled, in his subtitle: “Written by Basilides in Alexandria, the city where the East toucheth the West.” Along classic Gnostic lines, Jung/Basilides relates:
“Abraxas is effect. Nothing standeth opposed to it but the ineffective; hence its effective nature freely unfoldeth itself. The ineffective is not, therefore resisteth not. Abraxas standeth above the sun and above the devil. It is improbable probability, unreal reality… It is the effective itself, not any particular effect, but effect in general.
“Abraxas begetteth truth and lying, good and evil, light and darkness, in the same word and in the same act. Wherefore is Abraxas terrible.
“Hard to know is the deity of Abraxas. Its power is the greatest, because man perceiveth it not.”
A century after Jung recorded them, and nearly two millennia after Basilides taught them, these words still ring true.
Robert M. Schoch, a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. His most recent book is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (Inner Traditions, 2012). Website: RobertSchoch.com.